By Alexis Okeowo
Monday September 4, 2017
Despite threats from extremists, a league tries to stay on the court.
Aisha got her first call from the terrorists when she was fourteen. It was 2013, and she was at home, in Mogadishu, Somalia, when an unknown number appeared on her phone. She picked up. The man on the other end told her that Islam does not allow women to play sports, or to wear shirts and pants. It was immodest and indecent, he said. His voice was harsh and menacing. He told her that he was going to kill her if she didn’t stop playing basketball. The next day, another man called to say the same thing.
Aisha considers herself devoted to both Islam and the game.Illustration by Ping Zhu
Aisha changed her phone number three times, but the calls kept coming, and she became convinced that someone at the mobile-phone company was giving out her contact information. After a while, Aisha began to argue with the callers, telling them that she was going to do whatever she wanted. When they threatened to kill her, she responded that only God was permitted to be in control of people’s souls. She was just a teen-age girl, but even she knew that—unlike these supposedly pious men. Then her mother started getting calls, from men who warned that she was going to lose a daughter. Trying to appeal to her faith, they told her that basketball was haram—forbidden. Her mother was worried, and wanted Aisha to stop playing.
Aisha had first picked up a basketball only recently, but she had taken to it quickly. Her phone filled with photos and videos of the basketball player she most wanted to emulate: a famous American athlete named LeBron James. She had seen James on the Internet and found him mesmerizing. “He is black and tall and a really nice player,” she said. He was powerful and agile, endlessly clever. She wanted to have that kind of magic.
In a way, she felt destined for the game. Her mother, Warsan, had played when she was younger. Her father, Khaled, had worked as a referee in Somali basketball leagues, and she had gone to his games. “To see women and men playing, it was inspiring,” Aisha recalled. She began joining pickup games in tan-dirt lots around her house with kids who lived in her neighborhood. She didn’t know what she was doing, but she didn’t care; it was exciting just to hold a ball. “I always wanted to play basketball, but I was afraid that I wouldn’t find girls who would want to play with me,” she said. Not long after, a coach named Nasro Mohamed, a former teammate of her mother’s, asked if she was interested in playing regularly. Mohamed got Aisha together with seven other girls to start practicing.
Mogadishu was once a beautiful place, with pale, handsome government offices, mosques, and grand homes, all angling for proximity to the white beaches at the edge of the Indian Ocean. Now, after more than two decades of civil war and lawlessness, the buildings are riddled with bullet and shell holes, or crumbling from neglect, or newly built and characterless; the streets, where sand pools in the cracks, are filled with soldiers and policemen.
Aisha grew up in Suuq Bacaad, a neighborhood of low bungalows behind gates with bright, peeling paint. Her father had four wives and divided his time between them, but he managed to be with Aisha enough for her to feel loved. Her family wasn’t rich, but had enough money to get by. “My parents really worked hard to make sure that I had everything I needed,” she recalled. Aisha had two brothers and a sister, and she took it for granted that each member of the family would look out for the others. Even her neighborhood functioned like a clan: she played hide-and-seek with other children, some of whom were as close to her as siblings.
Warsan ran a café and a business that sold gold. She was tall and gentle, and never hit her children, as other mothers in the neighborhood did. She understood Aisha’s passion for basketball, because she’d once had the same need to play. Khaled supported Aisha, too, visiting her on the court and urging her to take the game seriously. Somalia has a club league, in which hundreds of girls and women play on eight teams in Mogadishu and several more in other parts of the country; the best players are recruited for the national team. “My father told me, ‘Either leave basketball or aspire to be a professional,’ ” Aisha said.
For Aisha, the best part of the day was going with her friends to a neighborhood court. In school, she was easily distracted. “I was not good with the teachers,” she said. “I never stopped talking and telling jokes. I annoyed everyone.” When she was in the eighth grade, she stopped going to school altogether. Her parents were upset; they had both gone to university and prioritized education for their children. They tried to force her to go back, but Aisha refused. “I didn’t feel like it was necessary for me to continue,” she told me. And, anyway, there was a civil war raging, and the future was impossible to predict.
Somalia ceased to be a coherent state in 1991, when its dictator, Siad Barre, was deposed by rebel militias. Barre, who had taken power in a military coup two decades before, had treated opponents brutally, but had also attempted to modernize the country. He moved to end the lineage-based clan, which traditionally defined politics in Somalia, by imposing a nationalist form of socialism. He codified a written form of the Somali language, which had been exclusively oral, and introduced a countrywide literacy program. His government promoted women’s rights, enabling women’s basketball to flourish; the national team played at the Pan Arab Games, and travelled to Iraq, Jordan, and Morocco.
A decade of lawlessness followed Barre’s fall, until the Islamic Courts Union, a group of Sharia courts backed by militias, assumed power. They took a harsh view of crime: thieves’ limbs were amputated, adulterers were stoned, and murderers were executed. Sports were declared satanic acts, and Somalis caught watching games on television were arrested; girls couldn’t go to stadiums to watch basketball, handball, or track and field, let alone compete in them. But, as the country reacted to the uncertainty with increasing conservatism, the Sharia courts had popular support. After a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion disbanded them, in 2006, a faction of their militias called al-Shabaab, or “the Youth,” rose up in response. It was even more extreme than the courts: when its members caught Somalis involved in sports, they sometimes killed them.
For five years, al-Shabaab fought bloody skirmishes for control of Mogadishu and the surrounding regions. Soldiers from the African Union, a continental organization, battled against them, with help from Somali clan militias. The United States, eager to fight terror but reluctant to send in its own troops, provided aid to the A.U. soldiers’ home countries and often ignored their human-rights abuses. Finally, in 2011, the coalition took back control of Mogadishu.
But the militants just went underground, vying with government forces neighborhood by neighborhood. (The U.S. has also conducted a clandestine campaign through Special Forces and private contractors.) Somalis still endured terror attacks near their homes and at their weddings and funerals. Government officials allegedly paid off clan militias and al-Shabaab leaders to keep their positions, and to stay alive. Drone strikes and indiscriminate neighborhood raids left young people distrustful of the government. The Islamic State has attempted to gain influence, with insurgents trying to establish outposts on the coast.
For ordinary Somalis, the terrorists and the military were both menaces, not to be trusted. Last year, a friend took me to an outdoor restaurant in Mogadishu called Beach View, which al-Shabaab had attacked a few months before. Militants drove a car filled with explosives into the adjoining hotel, and then ran into the restaurant, shooting. Patrons hid under the tables and in the kitchen; some fled to the beach, only to die on the sand. At least twenty people were killed. But when I visited there was no sign of mourning. People crowded the tables, laughing, eating seafood, taking selfies. Past the balcony, children played on the beach and, out at sea, families were piled into wooden boats for sunset rides. While they lasted on this earth, Somalis would not be denied the few pleasures it had to offer them.
Aisha divided her time between her mother’s house and her sister’s house, in a neighborhood targeted by al-Shabaab because it contained a police station. When I visited her there, my driver was nervous, and said that he wouldn’t wait longer than a few minutes; he soon left without me. The house was bright blue, with a courtyard that had turned muddy from steady rain overnight. On the porch, Aisha’s cousins were braiding their hair, pulling on head scarves, drinking tea. A faint, melodic call to prayer came from outside the gate. The room where Aisha slept was off the porch. Dim and drowsy, the room had one window with half-open blue shutters; a crookedly hung drape blew in a weak breeze. Two mattresses with the sheets pushed aside were on the floor, and we settled on top of them.
Aisha was seventeen, with an expressive face and a gold nose ring so tiny that it took a few long looks to notice it. She described herself as “always happy,” and she had a compulsive need to say what she thought and felt. She talked constantly, in a scratchy, high voice, while gesturing with her hands; at practice, her coach regularly threatened to kick her out if she didn’t stop talking. She was slight, and I observed that she seemed small for basketball. “There are a lot of players who are short and really good,” she said. “The playing should be from your heart and not dependent on how tall you are.” She had a game that night, and she offered to point out a girl who was tall but didn’t know how to shoot.
When Aisha started playing, she didn’t have the right clothes or shoes. Nasro Mohamed, her first coach, helped her get the equipment, and she was grateful. “When you have the kind of passion I have for basketball, everything else is kind of blurry,” she said. If she didn’t have money to take a minibus to the court, she asked neighbors for help or called teammates to see if anyone could pick her up. “I go beyond everything just to get to the court,” she said.
Nasro Mohamed, who was in her late forties, had fair skin and mirthful eyes behind glasses with hot-pink frames. She had grown up in southern Somalia and come to Mogadishu as a teen-ager to play for a team called Jeenyo, one of the best at the time. “We would go from our houses to the basketball court wearing shorts and Afros—and then we would go home around midnight still wearing whatever we wore to the court,” Mohamed told me. Now, she said, “people take religion as everything. They tell you to cover yourself, force it on you.”
During the fighting, Mohamed left for the United Arab Emirates. When she returned, in 2012, she got involved again with women’s basketball, which was struggling. “I came back and took about thirty girls and trained them,” she said. It was not easy to protect the girls. “A lot of girls want to play, but they’re scared,” Mohamed said. “If you don’t wear the hijab, people will start talking on the street, and you always have to be alert because at the court you don’t know who could kill you because you’re wearing trousers.”
Aisha’s former teammate Amaal began playing with the encouragement of a friend, a lively, well-liked girl named Faiza. One day, before a game, al-Shabaab militants arrived at Faiza’s house. They took her to an empty lot and tortured her, cutting her body and face with shards of glass, shaved her head, and then left her to die. “It made me really scared for my life,” Amaal recalled. “You put your life in danger in this country because of the thing that you love.”
When Amaal joined Mohamed’s group, she was apprehensive, but she went to the gym to work out every morning, and then met up with the others in the afternoon. “It made me stronger,” Amaal said. “I used to be at the house doing nothing—I never had any friends. Basketball lets me know more about myself. I’m around women who are passionate, who are my friends.” She hid that she played, even from relatives and friends, because she didn’t know whom she could trust. She was still piecing her life back together: her family had lost its house during the fighting and moved into a refugee camp. But Amaal was determined. “To have a dream and wear pants and a shirt and hold a basketball—there’s nothing stronger to me,” she said. “To think about what I want for myself and to do it.”
Once Aisha had learned the fundamentals from Mohamed, she flitted among teams in the club league. She played with single girls, married women, mothers, students. They were mostly in their teens and early twenties, and they talked and joked like sisters. Aisha’s teammates were energetic and scrappy, a mix of experienced players and novices. In a game I saw, one short girl kept stealing the ball to take shot after shot, missing nearly all of them, with a wide grin on her face. When a player on the other team made a three-pointer, she went over to congratulate her. Aisha, by contrast, had a pugilistic intensity; she was constantly moving and scheming. She was a center, the most physical position on the court.
On a team called Heegan, Aisha made friends with two outgoing, adventurous girls named Salma and Bushra. One evening, after practice, the three of them hailed a tuk-tuk, one of the yellow rickshaw taxis that crash through Mogadishu’s streets, and told the driver their destination. On the way, the driver took a wrong turn and then stopped. Aisha leaned forward and asked him where he was going. He told her that something was wrong with the vehicle, and that he was calling for help. Another man approached, holding a gun. “You girls are infidels,” the man told them. “You’re playing sports and walking on the street wearing pants.” He aimed the gun at Salma, and she jumped up and lunged for the weapon. But he fired and the bullet grazed Bushra’s leg. The girls managed to call over a policeman. After they breathlessly told him what had happened, he took the men to jail.
Later, the police had a press conference announcing the arrest of the man with the gun; he had admitted to planning several bombings in the city. Aisha watched the announcement on television. “He is still in prison today,” she said with satisfaction. But there were others, all over the city, who shared his views.
Mogadishu is a hard place to go unnoticed; there are always eyes watching you as you make your way through the city. In sidewalk cafés, men gather to talk and argue at all hours, drinking tea, smoking hookah, and chewing khat. Women linger nearby, selling food from stalls. They all keep watch on the street, observing passersby and the events of the day. They can be friendly, willing to offer help if a car bomb goes off. Or they can be hostile. People in Mogadishu speak of spies—neighbors, colleagues, friends, family—who report to al-Shabaab.
Women have learned where in the city to cover themselves with burqas, and where to pretend that they don’t play sports, in order to leave with their lives. The girls in the league played in pants and shirts, but many wore niqabs to and from the court, shielding their faces to show piety and to keep from being recognized. Aisha refused to wear one. “I don’t care,” she said. “I just show my face.”
When I met Aisha, she was playing for a club team called O.F.C. Late one afternoon, at her sister’s house, she was getting ready for practice. In her bedroom, Aisha looked like the embodiment of a feminine Somali woman, wearing a long floral skirt, a pale blouse, and a dark floral-print head scarf. She then walked across the room to rummage through a red suitcase. She stripped off the skirt, the blouse, and the head scarf, and replaced them with a red cotton tank top and a sky-blue jersey with the number ten on the back. (She was already wearing matching track pants under her skirt, as she usually did.) She retied the head scarf, knotting it like a bun, instead of letting it drape around her shoulders in the traditional way. Next, she pulled on a floor-length skirt and a mustard-yellow jilbab, which covered her head but left her face exposed. She was ready to make her way to the court to play ball.
We drove through a labyrinthine market in Hamar Weyne, a quarter of narrow streets lined with ancient crenellated walls. People filled the market, talking, haggling at stalls, pulling battered carts loaded with animals and cargo for sale. We arrived at a facility with an outdoor court, enclosed by peeling pink cement walls. Aisha’s teammates were scattered through the place, shooting hoops, running on treadmills, and lounging on benches, gossiping. Aisha pulled off her skirt and jilbab and roamed the grounds. Although the girls weren’t much safer here than anywhere else in Mogadishu, they were loud and carefree: this court was home.
One of the girls, Khadro, was visiting from New York, staying with her grandmother for the summer. She played basketball at home, and an uncle in Mogadishu had suggested that she join a local team while she was in town. She was amazed, she told me, at the girls who played despite all the strictures.
Her uncle, a boisterous man with a round belly, had come to watch the practice, and he started talking to Aisha. “Heegan is no joke,” he said, referring to her old team, a rival of O.F.C. “They actually own this court.”
“O.F.C. is getting better,” Aisha countered. “It is better.”
He offered a compliment—“I like your shirt”—and then went back to needling her. “Heegan is taking everything. It’s the best in soccer, handball, all the sports.”
“The Heegan soccer team is not that great,” Aisha yelled. “They’re in fourth place!” Her voice rose to a shriek. “O.F.C. is the No. 1 team! This ground belongs to me!” The girls laughed as the man retreated. Aisha picked up a ball and started dribbling, drawing some of the other girls into an impromptu game. Before long, her shouts could be heard through the court.
One morning, I was with Aisha at her sister’s house. She usually cooked breakfast for the family: lahoh—crêpes rolled with butter and honey—or sometimes camel liver with bread, a traditional meal. A few times a week, she also attended a technical school, not far from her house, to take computer classes. Mostly, though, she practiced: twice a day, six days a week. Occasionally, there were games. Friday, the holy day, she had off.
She considered herself devoted to Islam. She had memorized the Quran, and her uncle had a library of Islamic books, most of which she had read. “Praying and reading the Quran and going through these books gives me the feeling of being connected to God. It gives me the feeling that, on Judgment Day, I will not be judged because I missed my prayer or anything else, Inshallah,” she explained. But it didn’t make sense to her that God would care about girls playing basketball if they tried to be faithful and good.
Despite the extremists’ attempts to repress women, Aisha and her friends found ways to feel normal. In her circles, she said, “people speak what they feel.” When she was sixteen, her team travelled to Galkayo for a game, and on the way through the Mogadishu airport a young man asked if he could call her. Aisha thought he was handsome, and, though she didn’t give him her number, they later connected on Facebook, and she began to consider what romance might mean for her future. A lot of boys she had met wanted her to stop playing and get married. “I believe that I can manage to be married and play basketball,” she said. “There are girls who married and have kids who still play on my team.” She started going to the beach with the young man, and he visited her at home and talked with her mother over tea. Like her father, he supported her playing, and he came to her games. Now, when Aisha’s phone buzzed with calls from other boys, she usually silenced the phone with a smile. She wasn’t interested.
Some of the women in Aisha’s life were less encouraging. When she stayed at her sister’s house, the neighbors always told her that girls’ playing basketball was against Islam. Aisha’s grandmother said that she should stay inside, away from the men with guns. But she didn’t listen. “We need to go after our dreams and what we want for ourselves,” she said.
One evening after practice, she and five teammates were leaving a court in Hodan District—known as a dangerous place, where shootings and attacks were common. Aisha was on the phone with her mother, who was asking her to pick up milk and cooking oil on her way home. As the players walked, a black sedan stopped alongside them, and the driver asked if they needed a ride—a common occurrence in Somalia. Aisha didn’t recognize the man; he wore his beard long, and had on a white qamis, a linen robe. One of the girls asked him to drop them off down the road. Aisha wedged herself into the back seat with her friends.
After a few minutes, the driver pulled over, and then turned around to tell the girls that he knew who they were, what they were doing, everything about them; he named the neighborhoods where they lived. Aisha felt pricks of fear spread through her. “I know that you all are playing basketball,” he said. They shook their heads furiously and said that they had nothing to do with the sport. “I’ve been watching you play basketball,” he said. “All of you.”
The man’s phone rang, and he got out to take the call, locking the car behind him. The girls, panicking, pounded on the doors, but they wouldn’t budge. The man came back and rolled down a window so that he could watch them as he talked. Aisha pushed herself through the open window and fell onto the ground. Looking desperately around her, she picked up a big stone. She told the man that if he didn’t let them leave, she would throw the stone at the windshield. “I know I’m crazy, but I had to do something,” she told me. “If we stayed scared, this guy would kill us.” The man said, “Now you want to destroy my car? I wasn’t going to harm you. Calm down.” He unlocked the doors, and the girls scrambled out.
Aisha hailed a tuk-tuk and they got in, sitting tightly next to one another to feel safe. On the way home, they reported to the police that a man from al-Shabaab had threatened them. Aisha told no one else. “I had to hide it from my family so that they wouldn’t stop me playing,” she said. She was sure that if her parents found out they would send her to stay with her aunt in Ethiopia or, worse, keep her at home.
Many of the players and coaches complained that the officials who oversaw sports in Somalia didn’t do more to help female athletes. The men’s club teams had uniforms, regular games and practices, and space to play. The women’s teams had none of that. The men’s national team travelled around the continent to compete. The women’s team hadn’t left the country since 2011, when it went to Qatar for the Pan Arab Games, and placed fourth out of twenty-two countries. It was the only tournament the women had played since the civil war began, two and a half decades before.
Duran Ahmed Farah, the president of the Somali Olympic Committee, suggested that the problem was finding safe places. “We have to avoid risks as much as we can,” he told me. “Culturally, it’s not easy for girls to play sports outside. The boys can play soccer on the streets, but it doesn’t look good to a community if girls are playing sports outside.” Only two stadiums still stood in Mogadishu after the war; African Union soldiers had taken over the larger one, Mogadishu Stadium, and until recently used it as a military base. But Somalis had found ways to play sports on the streets, in vacant lots, on the beach, and in open-air courts that they built themselves.
The sports ministry blamed the spreading influence of al-Shabaab. “Families are putting a lot of pressure on girls,” Osman Aden Dhubow, the deputy minister, told me in his office. “Before, girls could play freely, dress how they wanted, they had their training facilities, they had finances. They don’t have that now. They don’t have the right coaches. Everything is at the wrong time.” I asked Dhubow and a colleague when the women’s teams would have their next game, and it took them several minutes to figure it out. The girls had so many constraints: their teams shared the few courts with the men’s teams, which evidently had priority, and there weren’t enough female referees, which complicated putting on games. When I asked how the sport could be made more accessible to girls, the officials said that the country had bigger issues to deal with, such as education and health.
Not long afterward, I met Abdulkadir Moalin, who helped run the basketball federation, which managed both the men’s and the women’s teams. We were at Wiish Stadium, near the city’s corniche, where families gathered, jumping away from waves as they broke over the seawall. Sitting on concrete bleachers, Moalin, a stout man with a salt-and-pepper beard, tried to explain why the girls so seldom travelled to compete. The members of the federation were unpaid volunteers, he said, and they had to recruit sponsors to pay for the teams’ travel expenses. It was a “false impression” that all the money seemed to go to the men. “Different people, different opinions,” he said, shrugging. “There are no resources at all!” Becoming agitated, he abruptly changed the subject to the United States. “How many women Presidents have you had?” he asked.
Aisha’s coach on O.F.C., Mulki Nur, was quiet and unassuming, but her loose, muted jilbab couldn’t hide her height and strong build. At practice, when she demonstrated how to grab a rebound, she was authoritative. Nur had played for the national women’s team in the eighties, during the team’s prime. “All I wanted was to play basketball around the world,” she told me, her face brightening. “I loved it, and I was proud of what I was doing.”
During the fighting, Nur coached girls until she started receiving death threats. “I was being chased by the militants,” she said. “The security level then was very bad, and it would have been easy for them to get to me.” She fled Somalia, leaving her ten children in the care of her husband. She was caught crossing into Sudan and eventually returned home, where she resumed her work with basketball. “I believe that women should be free,” she said. “They should have their full freedom.”
In 2015, several girls in the league had a chance to enter a tournament in the United Arab Emirates, but the federation balked. Moalin told me that it was difficult to travel with a Somali passport—and, of course, there was no money. “Some people in the federation do want to improve women’s basketball,” Aisha told me. “But others do not want any improvement for us. They just want us to keep playing by ourselves.” She had played at an event promoting women in sports, and when federation officials suspended her for not notifying them first she had managed to get the decision overturned.
Aisha was finding other ways to assert herself. A local radio station held singing contests for young people, and she liked to participate, performing songs that told stories about Somalia. Her mother didn’t like it, but she was resigned to her daughter’s stubbornness. Aisha had recently thrown a party at a hotel that became an illicit club at night. She and her friends drank and danced to Somali and American pop music, and she held her boyfriend. It was risky—militants sometimes targeted clubs with explosives—but Aisha usually found a way to do what she wanted.
“Conflicts can be opportunities,” Shukria Dini, a Somali-Canadian scholar of women’s issues in Somalia, said. “Yes, women lost a lot of rights, but also women became extremely creative, and made something out of the disaster. Conflict actually emasculates men, and it shifts the traditional social structures. The women take over new roles of responsibility. Seventy to eighty per cent of Somali households rely heavily on women’s income, and this has enormous potential in terms of women being the primary decision-makers.”
The older Aisha became, the more she argued with relatives. She had recently pointed out to her brother-in-law that her mother, in addition to playing basketball, swam competitively before the war, wearing a bathing suit. “Women used to go without the hijab and represent Somalia internationally while wearing almost nothing,” she said. “We shouldn’t say now that Islam doesn’t let us play.” Aisha thought it was good that Somalis were more in tune with their religion, but she didn’t think anyone should control how women carried themselves. “It should be their choice, not someone forcing them or telling them what to do,” she said.
But not everything in Aisha’s life was subject to her will. One afternoon in April, 2016, her brother Abdi left classes at the university where he was studying engineering and headed home. It was a hot, bright day, the kind that squeezed you tired. Abdi stopped at a pharmacy to buy medicine for their mother, who has diabetes. Two men were arguing nearby, and the dispute turned into a gunfight. Her brother was hit by a stray bullet, and he died soon after. Aisha was bereft; of all her siblings, he was the one she felt closest to. He understood her moods and her temperament, and he was often the peacemaker of the family. “He was happy,” Aisha said. “He supported me and stood up for me.” When I told her that I was sorry, she shrugged, and suggested that it was foolish to expect more. “This is life,” she said. “No one stays alive forever.”
And so, as much as Aisha loved Somalia, she thought about leaving all the time. Many of her friends and teammates had immigrated to Europe through Libya. “I want to leave this country,” she told me, even if it meant getting into an overcrowded, rickety boat and taking her chances on the sea. “It’s not safe here. Anything can happen to you.” For now, she would keep playing basketball. “I can’t act like I’m weak,” she said. “Weakness puts me in more danger. So I need to act strong and tough. I tell them I am going to do whatever I want—whatever they are against.”
Late last year, Aisha heard that Somalia was planning its first nationwide women’s basketball tournament, in the city of Garowe, in the Puntland region, where al-Shabaab was weaker. She couldn’t stop talking about it. Women were coming from all over the country to play; a filmmaker named Hana Mire, who is working on a documentary about Somali women’s basketball, was accompanying the team. But, just before Christmas, a group of influential clerics called the Somali Religious Council released a statement calling basketball “un-Islamic” and a “threat to their faith.” The council’s spokesman warned girls like Aisha not to show their “body and beauty” for men to see. On Facebook, Aisha said, the clerics encouraged people in Garowe to cut the girls’ throats.
Aisha, wearing an electric-yellow-and-black athletic shirt and pants, boarded the plane with trepidation. “I was afraid of what they were saying. All of my teammates and I were afraid,” she said. But she was distracted by the thrill of being on a plane, peering through the clouds at her receding home town and then landing in a new place—the city of Bosaso—less crazed and tense than Mogadishu. The team piled in a van and drove to Garowe, almost three hundred miles away, singing Somali pop songs, sticking their hands out the windows, and shouting at people they passed.
At their hotel, the players met the competing teams. “It was an amazing feeling. I didn’t even know these other girls existed,” Aisha said. There was a beautiful, expansive court, with a pale-green surface, that was theirs to use; for the next week, day and night, they could just play basketball.
The religious leaders had said that the players were going naked, and being sinful, so the girls decided to show that they could be pious on the clerics’ terms and also defiant. They played in hijab, along with the usual long pants and shirts. It was hot and uncomfortable, but Aisha thought that if wearing a hijab kept them safer at such an important moment, she would do it—this time.
Security guards stood at the entrance to the stadium, frisking everyone who entered, but the atmosphere in the stands was festive. The crowd was full of women: younger, older, holding babies, wearing jilbabs in an array of colors. It was the first basketball game for many of them, and they cheered for both teams, refusing to pick a side. An elderly woman yelled until she grew hoarse. During the opening game, after the first half, the crowd rushed the court, thinking that it was already over.
Each night of the tournament, the teammates gathered in a hotel room and sang more pop songs, jumping on the beds and screaming the words, to keep their energy high. After a series of challenging games, the team won second place. Aisha was more confident than ever in her playing, and she wanted to transfer to Horseed, the best team in the league. Playing in the tournament had given her a rarefied feeling: for once, she didn’t have to think about her family, or her boyfriend, or her neighbors, and what they would think of her choices. She decided that she would hold on to the feeling as long as she could. ♦
This article appears in other versions of the September 11, 2017, issue, with the headline “Out of Bounds.”
Alexis Okeowo joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2015. She is the author of “A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa.”
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